Five Surprises That Hit Me When Writing “How Jesus Became God”

Five Surprises That Hit Me When Writing “How Jesus Became God” June 19, 2014

In my opinion, How Jesus Became God  is the most important book I’ve written for non-scholars, since it deals with one of the truly vital issues not only for Christianity but also for Western civilization. One could easily argue that if Jesus had not been declared God, the history of the West would have been inconceivably and unalterably different. If Jesus’ followers had continued to think of him merely as a great Jewish teacher or as another failed prophet of God who was crucified for crimes against the state—if they had not elevated him to a level of divinity (or recognized that God had done so)—they would have remained a small sect within Judaism; as a consequence, they would not have attracted large numbers of Gentiles into their religious movement; in turn, there would not have been a steady growth of the church over the first three centuries; as a result, the emperor Constantine would probably never have even heard of this movement, let alone converted to it; and then, the massive conversions after Constantine would not have happened. Christianity would not have become the religion of the Roman State. We would not have had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or Modernity as we know it. It all hinges on the declaration that Jesus was God. This is a huge issue.

Possibly because of the enormity of the topic, I learned more writing How Jesus Became God than I did for any other book I’ve ever written for a general audience. Even more striking—at least to me, personally: I changed my mind about truly significant issues in the study of the New Testament and the history of early Christianity. Here is a taste of the surprises that lay in store for me when I began doing my eight years of research on the book. (I argue each point at length in various chapters of the book.)

  • I came to realize that when the very earliest Christians began to say that God had “adopted” Jesus to be his son, they were not saying something lowly about Jesus’s divinity (for example, that he was only adopted, not the natural Son of God). On the contrary it was an amazing and mind-boggling claim, as can be seen how “adoption” was understood in the Roman Empire. An aristocrat’s adopted son (rather than his natural son) inherited all of his status, prestige, and power. So what would it mean to be adopted not by a powerful politician, say, but by God himself?
  • For the first time I fully came to appreciate the fact that at precisely the same period that Christians were calling Jesus God is when pagans in the empire were calling the Roman emperor God. The declaration of Christ’s divinity was not made in a vacuum. It was a competition.
  • I changed my mind about an important part of the story of Jesus’s resurrection. I had always thought that the claim that his women followers discovered his empty tomb was  historically accurate (I thought so even as an agnostic). But I came to see that in fact this tradition is highly problematic, from a historical perspective. When you look at the practices of Roman crucifixion, it becomes clear that part of the punishment was precisely not to allow a decent burial. The bodies of crucified victims were typically left on the cross to decompose and be attacked by scavengers. Is there a reason to think that Jesus was made an exception? I came to believe (and to argue) that the answer is no.
  • For years I had puzzled over the “Christology” (that is, the understanding of Christ) in the writings of the apostle Paul: his various statements and comments about who Christ was just didn’t make sense and didn’t add up. And then, with the help of other scholars, I found a piece of the puzzle that allowed it all to fit together. Paul understood Jesus to be a divine being before he became a human, and more specifically, Paul thought that Christ was originally an angel—probably the Chief Angel of God—who became a human and then, at his resurrection, was rewarded by God for his faithfulness by being exalted to an even higher rank as one who was actually equal with God.
  • In my earlier writings, and in my thinking since graduate school, I had insisted that even though the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as God, the authors of the earlier Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not see him that way. I came to realize that I was flat-out wrong. These Gospels do understand Jesus as God. But what they mean by that is something very, very different from what John means by it. The key to early Christology is understanding that difference, as I explain at length in my book.

Every now and then a scholar has the joy and privilege of coming to understand something, even something of supreme importance, in a new and more compelling way. Sometimes scholars actually change their minds, in a big way. That happened repeatedly to me as I did my research for How Jesus Became God. I do not see it as a weakness for a scholar to have a change of mind—even about a topic that has been a topic of thought and research for thirty years or more! On the contrary, I think if scholars do not have a basic openness to changing their views, they are simply repeating what they’ve always thought—and that can’t be good for anyone. So too the people who read the findings of scholars need to be open to changing their minds about important issues. Hopefully How Jesus Became God will affect readers in that way.

Bart Ehrman is the author of How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014). This piece was originally posted at http://www.newsandpews.com/.

Read more perspectives on Scripture for the 21st Century by Adam Hamilton, Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor, Marcus Borg, and more, here.


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5 responses to “Five Surprises That Hit Me When Writing “How Jesus Became God””

  1. I am not a scholar, but I am a scholarly informed pastor, and the piece about Paul thinking of Jesus as a preincarnate angel and the body of Jesus decomposing on the cross seems a bit far-fetched to me.

    That Paul would apply the “wisdom” tradition to Jesus makes more sense to me and better explains the preincarnate language in Philippians and some sayings in his Corinthian correspondence (and Colossians, if he wrote Colossians) and I can’t imagine the disciples functionong in world ot total make believe, which seems to me would be the case if Jesus was not actually buried. I know these stories are far more theological/metaphorical than historical, but that really stretches it. Given what I know about NT scholarship (certainly not anywhere near as much as Dr. Ehrman knows) I seriously doubt these positions will be given much weight by the scholarly community (though what do I know).

    Also, in my thinking, attributing to Jesus divine functions (post-resurrection) is not quite the same as calling him God, which I don’t believe Paul ever did. Haven’t read the book, but I think I will pass on this one.

    By the way, Dr. Ehrman’s New Testament Introduction, in my opinion, is one of the best available. It’s an excellent introduction to the New Testament documents.

  2. I am but an humble lay person who tries to stay informed, but recently I read a book (Jesus and his World by Craig Evans) that talked about Jewish burial customs and that said the Romans made concessions and allowed burial of crucified Jews. Could Dr. Ehrman comment?

  3. “The declaration of Christ’s divinity was not made in a vacuum. It was a competition.” Yes. Deification cults abounded in the ancient Mediterranean world — anyone ever hear of Hadrian’s protege Antinous? He became quite popular. In ant event, your religion was unlikely to win converts unless you could somehow convince folks that its founder possessed divine powers.

  4. “For the first time I fully came to appreciate the fact that at precisely the same period that Christians were calling Jesus God is when pagans in the empire were calling the Roman emperor God.”

    I don’t quite understand what you mean by “precisely the same period”. Venerating the ruler as a living god was the standard for centuries, both before and after the emergence of Christianity.

  5. “Paul understood Jesus to be a divine being before he became a human, and
    more specifically, Paul thought that Christ was originally an
    angel—probably the Chief Angel of God—who became a human and then, at
    his resurrection, was rewarded by God for his faithfulness by being
    exalted to an even higher rank as one who was actually equal with God.”

    Oh look, the biggest gift to mythicism that could ever be given.